Global Warming and the G8: Q&A with Eileen Claussen

Transcript of Live Online, Washingtonpost.com

Wednesday, July 6, 2005; 11:00 AM

On the agenda for this week's G8 summit is the controversial issue of climate change and global warming, which has been the cause of growing concern in recent years. President Bush has been criticized by many for his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol but says he hopes to focus on new "green" technologies that could reduce the impact of gas emissions on the environment. What does the international concern over climate change mean for the major industrial powers represented at the G8? What steps might the leaders gathered in Scotland this week take to address global warming?

Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, was online Wednesday, July 6, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss this week's G8 summit and what it means for the issue of global warming.

A transcript follows:

Arlington, Va.: Even if everyone started riding bikes and never drove a vehicle again, there would be no discernible affect on the climate, because 98 percent of carbon dioxide appears naturally in the atmosphere. Isn't this really an attempt to control people's lifestyle choices you disagree with?

Eileen Claussen: You are really asking two questions. I think most scientists are convinced that human induced emissions are causing a large part of the temperature increases we are seeing and will see well into the future. But, to get to your second issue, I don't think anyone is suggesting riding bikes and never driving again. What we need are technologies that do not affect the climate. And we already have some that can make a real difference - for example, clean diesels and hybrid vehicles can reduce emissions from vehicles by roughly half.

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Wyoming: Hi Ms. Claussen, thanks for answering our questions. Can you please tell me what exactly is the Bush administration's view on global warming? Do they believe it's happening? Do they believe it's caused by humans? Do conservatives in other countries challenge global warming?

Eileen Claussen: The President has said that global warming is an issue, has acknowledged the role of humans in generating the greenhouse gases that are a significant part of the problem, and has implemented a very modest program that allows our emissions to grow but at a slightly slower rate.

Specific interests who wish to preserve the status quo have challenged the science, since that seems the best way to defeat efforts to take the problem seriously. There are some of those interests in other countries, but not as well funded as they are here, and less influential.

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Northern Virginia: I really don't believe in the Kyoto Protocol because the science is too inconclusive that humans are causing the supposed global warming. It seems that the emission goals set by the European nations and Japan are not feasible.

Do you believe that Europe is closer to the U.S. posture than the U.S. to Europe's regarding a compromise?

Eileen Claussen: Honestly, I think there is no real debate on the basics of the science -- that the earth is warming, that humans are largely responsible, and that the globe will keep warming unless we do something to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. That said, I think many of the countries that signed up to the Kyoto Protocol will have a difficult time meeting their targets, and some will almost certainly not achieve them.

But I think Kyoto is not the issue. Countries will do what they can, and some, like the United States, will never become a party to the Protocol.

The issue is how we proceed beyond 2012, what we do to develop and diffuse the necessary technology, and what kind of a global framework will help us achieve significant emission reductions over time (the next 50 years).

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Kensington, Md.: As a scientifically literate person I am appalled and ashamed that my countrymen have fallen for the oil industry's PR campaign to convince people there is still a "debate" on this issue. The climatology community has been in consensus for almost a decade. Besides electing real national leaders who aren't in the oil business, what do you think can be done to catch the American public up to the rest of the industrialized world in understanding the magnitude of this problem?

Eileen Claussen: I do think that the public has not really understood the issue of climate change very well, nor have they understood the role they play in greenhouse gas emissions. I believe we need a major effort to educate the public, so that members of the public can made educated decisions when purchasing products like automobiles or appliances, can vast their ballots for people who wish to genuinely tackle this problem, and can make investment decisions in companies that are part of the technological solution.

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Santiago, Chile: Do you think that Kyoto Protocol will survive after 2012? or will be amended by other treaty focused more in technology rather than serious commitment on emissions reductions?

Eileen Claussen: I believe we will need a somewhat different framework when we move beyond 2012. This is not to say that there aren't specific parts of the Kyoto Protocol will survive. I believe emissions trading, for example, will continue to be a part of any future framework. But I also think we need to develop a more flexible framework that will accommodate different kinds of objectives and commitments, that will help spur the development of new technologies and the widespread deployment of existing technologies that can make a serious difference.

Eileen Claussen: Eileen Claussen: I believe we will need a somewhat different framework when we move beyond 2012. This is not to say that there aren't specific parts of the Kyoto Protocol will survive. I believe emissions trading, for example, will continue to be a part of any future framework. But I also think we need to develop a more flexible framework that will accommodate different kinds of objectives and commitments, that will help spur the development of new technologies and the widespread deployment of existing technologies that can make a serious difference.

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Annandale, Va.: Have you read Michael Crichton's book "State of Fear"?

Eileen Claussen: Yes.

Eileen Claussen: Yes.

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Danvers, Mass.: Just looking around it seems we, the U.S., has hard-wired low cost fossil fuels into our lifestyle. The houses too far from anything to do your chores walking or biking, or catching a bus or a train. Retail is spread way out. How CAN we possibly make meaningful progress on CO2 even if we wanted to? Is it just realist politics to say, "Nope, ain't gonna do it"? How do people around the world view the way we've built our lives?

Eileen Claussen: Well, of course you are right, but I think you are discounting the technological progress that is possible. For example, we now have vehicles that can double the efficiency of the average car, and we have appliances that can significantly reduce energy demand. There is also a lot of work on alternative fuels -- for example biofuels for vehicles, which would significantly reduce emissions, or renewable energy (particularly wind) that is virtually greenhouse gas emission free.

This is not to say that we can make changes instantly. It will take time. But I believe we CAN do it, and we MUST do it, as must other countries.

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San Jose, Calif.: Isn't it obscenely disingenuous for you and your ilk to refer to carbon dioxide as a "pollutant," when in fact human beings exhale it when they breathe, and because carbon dioxide is vital to plant life?

Eileen Claussen: I have never referred to carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

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Washington, D.C.: Senator McCain has taken up global warming with a passion. What do you think was the tipping point that caused him to realize that this is the greatest environmental threat facing our planet? What do you think it will take to get other Congressional representatives to take this seriously?

Eileen Claussen: It is interesting that Senator McCain's interest was sparked by a demonstrator (called Captain Climate!)during his Presidential bid in 2000. The result was that he called a series of hearings when he chaired the Senate Commerce Committee, and became convinced of the science.

I have to say that I think we are beginning to see many others in the Congress starting to take the issue series. For example, in the debate on the Energy Bill in the Senate, an amendment passed that recognized the importance of this issue, and a resolution also passed that indicated that we need mandatory efforts to control emissions. So we are making progress, particularly in the Senate.

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Washington, D.C.: My question pertains to framing of the global warming issue. Many Americans worry about environmental concerns, but often are more focused on the concerns that directly affect their lives such as hazardous waste in their community or chemicals in their water supply. How must environmentalists frame the debate to make global warming seem more immediate and important to average Americans, considering the global warming strategies are looking out over the next 100 years?

Eileen Claussen: You raise a very important issue. It is very difficult to get the public to focus on an issue where the solutions will occur over 50 years or so. But if we don't start now, and do what we can, both to reduce emissions and to develop the technology that will enable further reductions later, we will have missed our opportunity to minimize the impacts of climate change. So it is an urgent issue that requires immediate attention.

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Washington, D.C.: Ms. Claussen, do you think the G8 will come up with something about the future framework (beyond 2012)? I guess there's no point of talking about Kyoto given the Bush administration's stubborn opposition. However, many companies are getting aware of the future carbon constraints, and focusing on the negotiation beyond the Kyoto period (2008-2012) appears more fruitful.

Also, could you say more about what you envision about the future framework? I think intensity targets could be more flexible than quantity targets.

(There seems to be public confusion about intensity targets partly because of the Administration's publicity, but I believe intensity target per se is nothing wrong. What matters is stringency, not intensity vs. absolute.)

Thank you.

Eileen Claussen: I do not have great expectations for the G-8 meeting itself, although I think Prime Minister Blair's efforts to put it on the global agenda have been very helpful. The fact is that President Bush has so far not shown a willingness to enter into discussions about what a beyond 2012 framework might look like.

Of course you are right about business interest and also interest at the State level, where many States are moving forward with very aggressive efforts. I also agree with you on the matter of targets - the issue is what they are, not what form they take.

On a future framework, I think the need is for something that allows for maximum flexibility in terms of types of actions and commitments. The notion that all countries should adopt the same kinds of targets or actions seems most unrealistic to me. What we need is action, and a future framework should allow for differences in national circumstances, resource endowments, etc.

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Munich, Germany: What do think about President Bush's statement that signing a Kyoto-like agreement would ruin the U.S. economy?

My thought is that if every western nation agrees to Kyoto-like environmental measures, then the U.S. is at no particular disadvantage. Being the only western nation not to sign, however, gives the U.S. a distinct economic advantage.

Whereas I agree that the future industrial giant, China, should be considered in any agreement, I think that it's absurd for the U.S. to spend so much money on conservation, while at the same time ignoring the consequences of Global Warming which could nullify many of those efforts at conservation.

Eileen Claussen: I do not agree with the President that a "Kyoto-like" agreement would ruin the US economy, although I do not believe that the US could have met its Kyoto target in the time frame allowed. And there is much discussion in the Senate at the moment on what kind of effort would be best to put us on a path of reduced emissions.

Of course the large developing countries need to be part of any future agreement, as does the United States. But it is my sense that we will need a framework that allows greater flexibility along with serious emission reduction commitments.

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Escanaba, Mich.: Good morning, Ms. Claussen.

I have two questions, if I may.

(1) Some critics of the Kyoto Protocol have pointed to Canada and claim Canada is not following its obligations because their emission rates have actually risen. But, couldn't that be because of prevailing winds and drifting American pollutants from nearby large cities (such as Buffalo and Detroit) over to Canada?

(2) Last year, we had an unusually cool summer. Again, some critics claim that was proof global warming was not happening. But isn't that view a bit ignorant? Isn't global warming a slight warming of the Earth's oceans, which in turn, can cause unusual weather?

Thank you.

Eileen Claussen: I am afraid that prevailing winds have nothing to do with emission rates. Canada's emissions have risen since it ratified the Kyoto Protocol, although it has put in place a program that it believes will allow it to meet its Kyoto obligation.

Yes to your second question. When the globe warms, the climate changes, and an unusually cool summer in one place is not a sign that the earth hasn't warmed!

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Geneva, Switzerland: It appears that many global companies now accept that climate change is a problem and are ready to act. What is the most important thing that the G8 leaders could do to enable these companies to move forward more quickly and effectively?

Eileen Claussen: You are right that many global companies accept that climate change is a problem and are ready to act. In fact a significant group of companies advised Blair that they are ready to act, that they would like some predictability, that they support cap and trade approaches, that they want a price for carbon, etc.

However, it is unlikely that the G-8 will agree to anything of that sort, primarily because President Bush does not support putting a price on carbon, has a policy of allowing our emissions to grow, and has a rather modest technology development effort underway.

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Annandale, Va.: The key to a successful transition to consumer products which leave a smaller environmental "footprint" comes down to profit. Once environmentally friendly goods become in demand and profitable for the companies that produce them, we will begin to see a large shift towards these goods. I believe Eastman Kodak made changes to their plants which reduced pollutants and energy consumption by half, not because they wanted to save the environment, but to save their bottom line.

Eileen Claussen: Well, yes. Of all the companies that have set emission reduction targets, and there are many of them, most expect to meet those targets by improving efficiency which will also positively affect their bottom line. But there is nothing wrong with that.

I also think we are beginning to see a shift toward more climate-friendly products and processes because many companies now see significant profit potential in those products and processes. Look at GE's advertising campaign.

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Washington, D.C.: Dejavu all over again with global warming...nothing's changed much in terms of the political strategy used by the White House since this path has already been followed with Acid Rain (Acid Precipitation; Transboundary Air Pollution; and so on...) Congress, with White House prodding, established the Acid Precipitation Act to create a ten year research program that delayed the need for American industry to respond and implement controls. TWENTY years later and we still haven't dealt with acid precipitation in the northeast and Canada.

I'd suggest anyone interested in breaking the barrier of dealing with climate change take acid precipitation as a case study of what NOT to do...

NOTE: Global Climate Change was already a full-blown research program at EPA in 1978... 27 years later?

Eileen Claussen: Yes, yes, yes.

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College Park, Md.: I'd agree with you that almost all scientists believe that the earth is warming. That's where it ends though. The only way we think humans are the cause are from computer models that can't even predict within 5 degrees what the temp was in 1990 using data starting from the 1800's. And that's all we have right now.

We all know climate changes, that's what it does. We've had ice ages and after the ice age, global warming. If it isn't warming, it's cooling.

The question is, why stoop to energy rationing which is the only way something like Kyoto will work? Why aren't scientists instead pushing for cleaner technologies instead of saying that we need to use less energy?

Eileen Claussen: Well, I don't agree with you on the issue of human induced emissions, and I suggest you look at both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and the reports of the US National Academy of Sciences.

But to get to your question - I don't think anyone is suggesting that we "stoop to energy rationing," and there is a serious effort underway to develop cleaner technologies - renewables, carbon capture and sequestration for coal, biofuels, etc.

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Cleveland, Ohio: How important do you feel it is to get China and developing economies on board early on in this discussion? I would guess it would be very beneficial to the global climate if you attack the problem during development compare to after the situation is difficult to change by utilizing cleaner methods of energy consumption.

Eileen Claussen: It is crucial that China and other major developing countries begin to tackle this issue. There are roughly 25 countries that account for 85% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Each of these countries must participate in the effort to minimize and reduce emissions if we are to be successful at doing what needs to be done. And in some ways, it is "easier" to do some things in earlier stages of development, although it may also be more expensive, which would make it a challenge to many developing countries.

And we can do our part, too, if we do it thoughtfully, and over time. For example, it would be desirable for China and other coal-burning countries to build the cleanest most efficient power plants that are amenable to carbon capture and storage. But we can also turn over our existing fleet of not very clean coal burning power plants over perhaps 50 years, and do the same thing.

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Arlington, Va.: For those countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, how well have they done thus far in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels prescribed by the Protocol? Has anyone ventured to predict the effect on global temperature if all countries (including the U.S.) signed the Protocol and achieved its goals?

Eileen Claussen: Most countries are not doing very well in their efforts to meet their Kyoto commitments, although it is a bit early to judge conclusively who will and who will not meet their targets (they have until 2012). The reality is that even if all countries signed on to Kyoto and met its targets, we would have a negligible impact on the global climate. What we need is a sustained effort over a period of years to reduce emissions. Kyoto is at best a starting point, a statement of will.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: When a country agrees to reduce emissions, what does it physically do? Do most countries assist companies in retrofitting equipment to reduce emissions, do they enforce and make companies lower emissions on their own without public assistance, or do they adopt the standards and hope for the best?

Eileen Claussen: It is really a mix -- different countries have taken different approaches. For example, the European Union has adopted an emissions trading scheme that sets targets and allows emitters to choose which way to reduce their emissions. Other countries have enacted carbon taxes. Some have voluntary agreements with their industries to reduce emissions.

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Kingstowne, Va.: In the 1970's, it was global cooling. Isn't it true that any climate change is part of natural cycles and cannot possibly be human-induced?

Eileen Claussen: Scientists have conducted a number of attribution studies that compare observed changes in the global climate with those factors that are known to influence climate. These studies indicate that the climate change observed over the 20th century is due to a combination of changes insolar radiation, volcanic activity, land use changes, and increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases. Of these, greenhouse gases appear to be the dominant driver of climate change over the past few decades. This is the view of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Baltimore, Md.: How is the hysteria over so-called "global warming" different than the hysteria we saw in 1978 with the Newsweek cover story about the coming new ice age?

Eileen Claussen: I don't think there is hysteria at all. I think there is now a body of scientific opinion that indicates that the earth is warming and that it is largely human induced. And politicians and others are taking that seriously, as they should, since the impacts are likely to be significant - from sea level rise, to precipitation changes causing both more droughts and more floods, depending on where you are. Doing something to deal with that is, in my view, a no-brainer, particularly since if we do it thoughtfully, it is not costly (while doing nothing could be very costly).

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Lexington Park, Md.: In the late Ordovician period, Earth suffered and ice age with over 4,000ppm more CO2 in the atmosphere. According to most climate computers, if those levels were achieved today we'd lose all the ice on the planet. We are also in the middle of one of the coldest times on our planet and if the earth is just naturally warming, we're just going to spend money on a unfixable problem.

Now the Russian Academy of Science has asked to have its name withheld from the statement made by Lord Robert May saying that the world biggest academy's agree that climate change is human caused. Why are these things not reported more often?

Eileen Claussen: I believe junkscience.com has reported that SOME Russian scientists have asked to have the Russian Academy remove its name. This appears to be speculation.

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Washington, D.C.: The European Union has adopted ambitious reduction targets and has a cap-and-trade scheme. Europeans are willing to pay much higher electricity and gas prices than we are. Why do you think Europeans are so much forward-thinking on global warming and energy efficiency than Americans?

Eileen Claussen: I think there has been greater political leadership in Europe than here. Also, there have been higher energy prices in Europe for a long time, and I suspect Europeans are more used to them than Americans.

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Eileen Claussen: Thanks for joining us today. We do have a lot of information on our Web site, which I hope can answer some of the remaining questions.

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